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Sunday, May 27, 2018

More from Harry Vardon on "Simple Putts"

I waited a while to continue the putting advice from Harry Vardon that I began in a couple of posts a couple of weeks back. This section, quoted from his 1905 book The Complete Golfer, is LONG and I could find no way to chop it up without ruining his logic.

Yes, this is only two paragraphs from the book, which is in the public domain here in the US. I'll try to pull out the best ideas at the end of this post, but there's considerable value in wading through Vardon's somewhat longwinded prose. Here is his advice on how to set up for a typical putt and how to think about the stroke itself.
For the proper playing of the other strokes in golf, I have told my readers to the best of my ability how they should stand and where they should put their feet. But except for the playing of particular strokes, which come within the category of those called "fancy," I have no similar instruction to offer in the matter of putting. There is no rule, and there is no best way. Sometimes you see a player bend down and hold the putter right out in front of him with both wrists behind the shaft. This is an eccentricity, but if the player in question believes that he can putt better in this way than in any other, he is quite justified in adopting it, and I would be the last to tell him that he is wrong. The fact is that there is more individuality in putting than in any other department of golf, and it is absolutely imperative that this individuality should be allowed to have its way. I believe seriously that every man has had a particular kind of putting method awarded to him by Nature, and when he putts exactly in this way he will do well, and when he departs from his natural system he will miss the long ones and the short ones too. First of all, he has to find out this particular method which Nature has assigned for his use. There ought not to be much difficulty about this, for it will come unconsciously to his aid when he is not thinking of anybody's advice or of anything that he has ever read in any book on golf. That day the hole will seem as big as the mouth of a coal mine, and putting the easiest thing in the world. When he stands to his ball and makes his little swing, he feels as easy and comfortable and confident as any man can ever do. Yet it is probable that, so far as he knows, he is not doing anything special. It may happen that the very next day, when he thinks he is standing and holding his club and hitting the ball in exactly the same way, he nevertheless feels distinctly uncomfortable and full of nervous hesitation as he makes his stroke, and then the long putts are all either too short, or too long, or wide, and the little ones are missed.

I don't think that the liver or a passing variation in temperament is altogether the cause of this. I believe it is because the man has departed even by a trifle from his own natural stance. A change of the position of the feet by even a couple of inches one way or the other may alter the stance altogether, and knock the player clean off his putting. In this new position he will wriggle about and feel uncomfortable. Everything is wrong. His coat is in the way, his pockets seem too full of old balls, the feel of his stockings on his legs irritates him, and he is conscious that there is a nail coming up on the inside of the sole of his boot. It is all because he is just that inch or two removed from the stance which Nature allotted to him for putting purposes, but he does not know that, and consequently everything in the world except the true cause is blamed for the extraordinary things he does. A fair sample of many others was the clergyman who, having missed a short putt when playing in a match over a Glasgow links, espied in the distance on an eminence fully a quarter of a mile away from the green, an innocent tourist, who was apparently doing nothing more injurious to golf than serenely admiring the view. But the clerical golfer, being a man of quick temper, poured forth a torrent of abuse, exclaiming, "How could I hole the ball with that blockhead over there working his umbrella as if it were the pendulum of an eight-day clock!" When this is the kind of thing that is happening, I advise the golfer to try variations in his stance for putting, effecting the least possible amount of change at a time. There is a chance that at last he will drop into his natural stance, or something very near it, and even if he does not there is some likelihood that he will gain a trifle in confidence by the change, and that will count for much. And anyhow there is ample justification for any amount of manœuvring of the body and the feet when one is off one's putting, for at the best, to make use of something like an Irishism, the state of things is then hopelessly bad, and every future tendency must be in the way of improvement. There is one other suggestion to make to those golfers who believe what I say about the natural stance, and by this time it will have become more or less obvious to them. It is that when they are fairly on their putting, and are apparently doing all that Nature intended them to do, and are feeling contented in body and mind accordingly, they should take a sly but very careful look at their feet and body and everything else just after they have made a successful long putt, having felt certain all the time that they would make it. This examination ought not to be premeditated, because that would probably spoil the whole thing; and it usually happens that when one of these long ones has been successfully negotiated, the golfer is too much carried away by his emotions of delight to bring himself immediately to a sober and acute analysis of how it was done. But sometime he may remember to look into the matter, and then he should note the position of everything down to the smallest detail and the fraction of an inch, and make a most careful note of them for future reference. It will be invaluable. So, as I hold that putting is a matter of Nature and instinct, I make an exception this time to my rule in the matter of illustrations, and offer to my readers no diagram with stance measurements. From the two photographs of myself putting in what I had every reason to believe at the time was my own perfectly natural stance, they may take any hints that they may discover.
Then Vardon includes these two photos. Unusual stance, huh?

Vardon's putting stroke, as seen from his left

As you can see, he used a very short putter. And here's another view:

Vardon's putting stroke, as seen from his rightt

Vardon's refusal to give any measurements or diagrams regarding his stance is significant. Throughout his book, he is almost neurotic in his attention to detail when it comes to describing what he does and how he executes the various shots he plays. To simply say that 'putting is an individual matter and you'll just have to find what feels natural to you' is an amazing concession on his part!

His advice on how to find this natural stroke is also amazing, since it shows considerable insight. Think about this, folks: We often talk about how children putt better than most adults, and they get worse as they get older and develop 'scar tissue' from missed putts. Vardon's logic here is simple: Children putt better because their minds aren't full of other people's advice! They just putt the way that seems most logical to them. And Vardon says that's how you have to find your natural stroke:
...he has to find out this particular method which Nature has assigned for his use. There ought not to be much difficulty about this, for it will come unconsciously to his aid when he is not thinking of anybody's advice or of anything that he has ever read in any book on golf. That day the hole will seem as big as the mouth of a coal mine, and putting the easiest thing in the world.
Unconscious putting -- a simple concept that goes against most modern instruction. Too much practice inhibits unconscious technique. And make no mistake about it, your 'natural stroke' is a technique; it's just not based on "I need to hold the club like this and stroke on this path and keep my wrists in this position at impact."

Instead of thinking about how to putt, you should be thinking only about getting the ball in the hole, period. And notice that, later in the piece, he specifically says that you can't consciously try to standardize your stroke based on the days you putt well: it's all about comfort. And that makes sense, because you're human and your body feels a bit different each day, so if you could get in the exact same position each day, some days you'd putt well and some days you wouldn't because you still wouldn't feel right all the time.

Sounds like mysticism, doesn't it? That's why Vardon's method is not taught these days, but quantifiable technique is. Note that Vardon DOES say that, when your putting goes bad, it's probably because of a change in your stance. That's because your stance is your only connection to the ground and such a change would affect your balance, how you reach for the ball, the tension in your muscles, and so on.

And if you read on in that second paragraph, Vardon goes to far as to suggest that players get distracted by every little thing around them when they putt simply because they aren't comfortable over the ball that day.
Which means that Vardon's guiding principle for putting is that you should feel comfortable when you stand over the ball, no matter what your technique looks like when you do. Because he says that is probably your natural way of putting, and therefore it's the method that will likely give you the most success.
I'll stop there. There is so much about the mindset of putting that can be gleaned from these two lengthy paragraphs! Even sports psychologists could find some useful material here. So I'll leave it to you, to search for clues that might help you improve your own putting.

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